Movie Review: Basketball and madness and “the best ever” — “Curtis”

A wonderfully lived-in but melancholy lead performance is the best reason to check out “Curtis,” a simple yet affecting portrait of mental illness starring the Bayou dad of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Dwight Henry has the title role, a Detroit man suffering from schizophrenia, trapped in his one great moment of past basketball glory.

“Were y’all there when I hit the shot that won the city championship? The whole CITY was there!”

Curtis is greying, well into his ’50s and living with his mom (Kalena Knox), whose one wish for him is that he take his pills to keep his madness at bay.

He mutters to an imaginary friend. He likes his beers in a brown bag, and prefers skipping his pills.

He rants that “I should be making MILLIONS,” that “Kobe stole” this and “Larry Bird stole” that, because “I was the best EVER.”

But he’s known and tolerated in the neighborhood. Almost everybody’s heard the “It was FIVE SECONDS LEFT” story about that Big Game, long ago. Curtis is lost in it. And when he meet him, he’s just lost his favorite memento of that night, the ring given to the players on the winning team.

That’s when he meets the one kid in the neighborhood who can’t ball, the last one picked because “Your game is trash,” Dre (Alex Henderson of “Creed” and “Tyler Perry’s Assisted Living”). The kid indulges the old man, listens to him complain about the ring and how it contains “my powers,” and helps him search for it even though he saw the guy who took it from Curtis.

Maybe “the best ever” can teach him how to improve his game?

Writer-director Chris Bailey, a Detroit native, has made an indie drama of modest means and ambitions, the best kind of debut feature — a well-acted and affecting story “about something.”

This isn’t a deep dive into mental illness. But the poignant sketch offered up here rings true. Sometimes, his “I ain’t got TIME for this” mother knows that the only thing that will bring her boy back to himself and the present is a plea.

“Look in the mirror!”

Bailey avoids the traps this story sets up for him, his characters and the viewer. No glib “And that’s the (mad) man who put me in the NBA” story unfolds here. There’s not a lot of “learning,” just a blossoming of empathy from a bullied kid who needs a few physical skills, but more mental ones to get through life and basketball. Can Curtis provide either?

“I done died and come back MANY a time…Basically, on the tree of life, my plum fell off and rotted.”

“Curtis” is just a broken, lost man with a problem and an underage kid who tries to help him get that ring and “my powers” back. That’s drama at its most basic, and with just a couple of incidents of heightened melodrama, Bailey tells this simple story about that simple quest without a wasted moment or a lot of fuss.

Rating: unrated, some violence, profanity

Cast: Dwight Henry, Alex Henderson and Kalena Knox.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Chris Bailey. A 1091 release.

Running time: 1:19

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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